Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz in Balanchine's Coppélia
(Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)

In Balanchine's comedic Coppélia, San Francisco Ballet's Frances Chung brings out Swanilda's playful side.

All of Swanilda's actions come from a place of pure fun. She's kind of sassy, but I like bringing out her playfulness instead of taking a more bratty approach. The role comes quite naturally to my personality. When my partner and I are in the studio, we're very playful even though we're working hard and refining everything. I try to have a good time and I think that it translates onstage.

As Swanilda, my love for Franz is very youthful, like when you hit someone because you like him. I'm quite confident in myself and in our love, even though I see him blowing kisses at another girl (really a doll). I get mad for a second, but at the end of the day I know he's going to choose me. That's my underlying feeling. When I finally make the connection that she's a doll, I think it's hilarious!

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Inside PT

Natalia Osipova in Coppélia (Photo by Marc Haegerman, via the New York Times)

Bolstered by its eccentric characters, Coppélia has comic flare like no other ballet. In this 2009 rendition staged by Sergei Vikharev, Natalia Osipova, a then 23-year-old Bolshoi Ballet soloist, storms the stage in Swanhilda’s variation from Act III. It would be another year before her promotion in 2010, but here Osipova demonstrates all of the ideal qualities of a principal dancer: articulated feet, expressive arms, an emotional parallel with the character that comes from years of experience and, of course, flawless technique.

After being reunited with her beloved Franz, she leaps (quite literally) onstage with confidence. The variation is fashioned with jumps, and though petite, Osipova seems to defy gravity, proving once again why her jumps are famous worldwide. She dives into each step with ease, showing a mesmerizing certainty in her ability (specifically after her soutenous at 1:10, before she begins an endless stream of développés and pirouettes). In the final seconds of the variation, Osipova’s delicate upper body captures the lighthearted nature of the ballet so well.

Now a principal with the Royal Ballet, Osipova has shown an interest in contemporary ballet. Just recently, she traded in her tutu to appear in an evening of contemporary work by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita. Now that she has our attention, we wait in anticipation of her next performance! Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

In a rehearsal before their Lincoln Center performance of Coppélia last May, Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin ran through some of the partnering in a studio several levels below the Metropolitan Opera stage where they would perform. In Frederic Franklin’s charming production for American Ballet Theatre, Swanilda, danced by Lane, and Franz, by Simkin, must balance raucous comedy with sublime classicism. Although considered the perfect soubrette role, Swanilda presents serious technical challenges. The dancer must possess a chameleon-like ability to transform from a spunky village beauty to a robotic doll to a loving bride. And Franz is much more than a frat boy jokester; he becomes a devoted husband in the pristine wedding pas de deux at the end of the ballet.

 

"I love that Swanilda is sassy," says Lane. "My interpretation is that she’s really fun, has a lot of friends and at the same time has a very strong will—she knows what she wants. I can relate to her because I can be very opinionated. You’ve been mischievous the whole ballet and then, in the wedding pas, the love between you and Franz blossoms. Every relationship is like that—you have bad times, but you turn them into something beautiful. Love for each other wins in the end.”

Still winded from a run-through of Swanilda’s 10-minute Act III pas de deux, Lesley Rausch walks through her variation with Pacific Northwest Ballet ballet master Otto Neubert. “You have a killer instep; show that to the audience,” says Neubert. As they move along the diagonal together—a kind of pas de cheval into chassé pas de bourrée on pointe, 14 subtly different times in a row—he encourages the soloist to make more of the end of each pas de bourrée. New timing and a tighter fifth suddenly make the old-fashioned sequence exquisite. Neubert adds, “Let the movement originate from the shoulders,” and Rausch’s port de bras becomes part of the step’s charm.

 

This dainty variation—like its accompanying pas de deux and coda—was originally created by Petipa, and George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova included it when they made their Coppélia in 1974. PNB called on one of the original New York City Ballet cast members, Judith Fugate, to set the ballet this spring. She only had a few weeks, but, as she says, “Not having everything chewed up and handed to you develops you as an artist.”

 

Swanilda, the ballet’s lead role, certainly calls for an artist. Or two, suggests PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal: “One who walks around on her heels acting feisty and the other an elegant, refined ballerina.” When Swanilda sees her boyfriend Franz falling for the very quiet, very still Coppélia, she investigates and gleefully discovers that Franz’s precious beloved is only a doll. Swanilda saves Franz from the machinations of dollmaker Dr. Coppélius and, without any recrimination, the two get married, completely in love. The dancer performing Swanilda needs to project inquisitiveness, spirit and charm. She needs comedic timing, but tenderness, too. She’s not above an occasional moment of girlish pique. And she’s young: The first Swanilda, in 1870 at the Paris Opéra, was only 16.

 

To get into character, Rausch looked for personality traits she shared with Swanilda: She feels they both have spunk, intelligence and energy to spare. “Five years ago I was very uncomfortable putting myself in an acting mindset,” says Rausch, who is known for a regal, technical excellence that suits abstract Balanchine ballets. She saw an opportunity for growth with this role and enjoyed feeling Swanilda’s childlike wonder and playfulness. Hers was a Swanilda who danced to have fun.

 

Act III presents the most technical challenges. It’s more than just dancing fast at the end of a long ballet. “The pas de deux,” Rausch explains, “has awkward moments, so you’re using your body to make it controlled and smooth.” One such moment is the bird lift—or “nightmare lift,” as Boal calls it. Rausch has to get her hips, not ribs, to make contact with her partner’s shoulder—all in one seamless phrase. To accomplish this, Rausch focused on staying pitched forward and keeping her and her partner’s left hands in front so both could sense her balance.

 

The variation is mostly hops on pointe. Because Rausch has super-flexible feet, she adjusted her arch and pulled back on her ankle to accomplish the plié. Unlike other jumps, “you can’t cushion with your feet here,” says Boal. He recommends coordinating the landing through the knees and quads to cushion above the feet.

 

Also challenging is the coda’s 16-count double manège. Rausch advises: “Pick points to focus on and plan where you’re going to step.” Boal adds, “Bank on the turns. Lean back to round the corner.” Coppélia ends happily for Swanilda, as it did for Rausch. Rausch went on a week earlier than scheduled and gave two strong performances. Her Swanilda never became saccharine and proved a joy to watch. At the beginning of the Act III marathon, she pulled off a luxurious, three-second hold on an airy arabesque. Stamina? Not an issue!

Dancer: Sarah Van Patten
Company: San Francisco Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten always commands the stage in roles that call for dramatic depth and musicality. But because she is not usually thought of as a strong technician, she was a long shot to be cast as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

Certainly, her interpretation was the least virtuosic among the six women who performed the role in Helgi Tomasson’s new
production—but hers was also the boldest and most touching. Van Patten’s phrasing as Odette was lush and aching. Her sexiness as Odile was searing. Portraying the emotions of her characters came naturally, Van Patten says. But she also powered through the fear-inspiring fouettés and worked hard to maintain strong footwork. “I wanted to have a solid base because when you have that, you can give yourself over to the role,” she says. Indeed, she achieved the technical strength she needed, but put it in total service to emotional artistry. —Rachel Howard



Dancer: Domenico Luciano
Company: Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre
Ballet: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

 
Domenico Luciano knows how to be a he-bird. As the only dancer outside of Matthew Bourne’s troupe performing Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake pas de deux, Luciano made a statement during his Houston performance last season. At 6’ 3” and a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s David, Luciano is a mighty presence. He evokes an animal energy with his seemingly endless lines. Bourne’s ballet straddles a fine edge between parody and myth, and Luciano luxuriates in that very territory: sensuous, but always masculine. “Bourne’s piece feels right for my physicality,” says Luciano. “Although I’m so comfortable in the role, there’s so much to discover in the character. It’s a bit murky in that I am a figment of the prince’s imagination. The relationship between the prince and the swan is really deliciously ambiguous.” —Nancy Wozny

 

Dancer: Natalia Osipova
Company: Bolshoi Ballet
Ballet: August Bournonville’s La Sylphide

 
In her sensational debut with American Ballet Theatre last June, Bolshoi Ballet principal Natalia Osipova demonstrated the power of a beloved old classroom step: grand jeté. With her impeccable technique and unfailing musicality, she would be the ideal heroine for any ballet, but it was the airy lightness of her grand jeté that made her the perfect choice for the doomed forest sprite in Bournonville’s La Sylphide. The three leaps she performed in rapid succession at the end of Act I seemed to require no preparation at all, coming out of nowhere to vanish before our eyes. While tossing off feats of strength, Osipova embodied a fatal fragility. A creature of the air, utterly weightless, she was too delicate to escape the tragic end awaiting her. —Harris Green

 

Dancer: Alina Cojocaru
Company: The Royal Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Giselle

 
For almost a decade, Alina Cojocaru had been one of the brightest stars in a sparkling constellation of ballerinas at The Royal Ballet—until a prolapsed disc in her neck threatened to end her career in 2008. After 11 months away from the stage, she returned to the Royal Opera House last April to perform Giselle, her signature role.

Cojocaru always brings exquisite technique and emotional poignancy to this role. But being unable to dance for so long brought her even closer to her character. “The joy of dance made my Giselle and my Alina be one person more than ever,” she says. With just five days’ rehearsal, she allowed no concessions to her long layoff; her technique was as brilliant as ever and Giselle’s adolescent innocence blossomed into a coruscating love that defied the grave. The New York Times’ critic Roslyn Sulcas declared it to be “one of the great dance renditions of our time.” 

    
At the end of an emotional evening, the ecstatic audience covered the stage in flowers and, as the curtain fell, Cojocaru says she felt that “to lose and then fight for something I love was in my very soul. One battle in my life was won; now I’m ready for whatever else life will bring!” —Graham Watts

 

Dancer: Riolama Lorenzo
Company: Pennsylvania Ballet
Ballet: Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto

 

Sometimes a smaller company offers just the room for growth that an exceptionally gifted dancer needs to burnish her talent. Riolama Lorenzo danced Peter Martins’ Fearful Symmetries while in the corps of New York City Ballet several years ago. Now, after having moved to Pennsylvania Ballet in 2002, and ascending from corps to principal in three short years, she’s still dancing Martins’ work—sublimely. Her role in his Barber Violin Concerto last season had Lorenzo making a dazzling transition from the ideal
ballerina who seemed to land each jump on a pillow of air, to literally letting her hair down in gutsier action. Cuban-born Lorenzo is beloved by Philadelphia audiences for her daring and her clear attack. Standing 5’8”, with exquisitely arched feet and an astonishingly supple spine, her flexibility, precision and range along with a presence that exudes both directness and depth make Riolama Lorenzo shine. —Lisa Kraus

 

Dancer: Alex Wong
Company: Miami City Ballet
Ballet: Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room

Few would think of the cheerfully loosey-goosey choreography for the sneaker-clad “stompers” in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as technical. Yet when Miami City Ballet principal soloist Alex Wong blazed through the stompers’ bouncy leaps and backward jogs this spring, he epitomized virtuosic technique. Wong’s precise classical style and fine-tuned musicality lent the high-speed role—which most dancers are lucky just to survive—polish and panache. And in a work defined by explosive displays of energy, Wong crackled with a singular electricity: His jumps were the most buoyant, his joyful intensity unmatched.

Wong thinks that Tharp’s presence in the audience inspired his superhuman performance. “We were pushing as hard as we could for her, trying to fill the entire space,” he remembers. “Just thinking about it makes my body start to tingle.”  —Margaret Fuhrer

 

Dancer: Sterling Hyltin
Company: New York City Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s Coppélia

Sterling Hyltin made several outstanding performances at New York City Ballet last winter, and two were as Swanilda in Coppélia. At her first performance, her sunny personality, unfailing musicality, assured technique and buoyant energy proved a perfect fit for the spunky heroine. Less successful was acting that relied on mugging (rolling her eyes, say, to express disdain for her boyfriend, Franz). By her second performance, however, Hyltin had replaced mannerisms with actions; now Swanilda snubbed Franz with a toss of her head or a shrug. It was if she had created a new performance, one that could now reach the audience at the very top of the house through movement alone. Such makeovers are as much a part of Hyltin’s dancing as taking class. —Harris Green

 

Dancer: Kristi Boone
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son

 
Although she’s been a soloist since 2007, Kristi Boone has rarely been given the chance to carry a ballet. But during a foray into principal territory last June as the Siren, she looked every inch the part, from the sensuous, exaggerated curves of her legs and feet to her beautiful face, stoic and imposing. It was a dangerous, exciting debut. Her dancing was icy and deliberate—she pulled off the tricky Balanchine choreography with finesse. Boone had been itching to wield the Siren’s red cape since ABT’s last run of Prodigal in 2000, when she was still with ABT II. She relishes the role as a rare opportunity for a female dancer. “You’re usually the damsel in distress,” she says. “You never get to have that much power.” —Kina Poon

 

Dancer: Jonathan Porretta
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Ballet: Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake

 
Even when the music was soft in PNB’s production of the Petipa classic, you couldn’t hear Jonathan Porretta land his clean, soaring jumps. You could, however, in an auditorium that seats 2,900, actually hear the beating of his feet.

Over the past few years, working with contemporary choreographers, this magnetic virtuoso has grown into an artist. With his Swan Lake roles—the flashy, character-rich Jester and the gentler, lyrical pas de trois male—he proved himself a sensitive master of classical ballet as well. Porretta is all things to all people, working to fulfill choreographers’ visions, embodying composers’ music, connecting with fellow dancers, achieving personal satisfaction and conversing with the audience. And what a conversation it is! —Rosie Gaynor

 

Dancer: Joanna Wozniak
Company: The Joffrey Ballet
Ballet: Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring

 
Joanna Wozniak danced The Chosen One in Rite of Spring three times during the Joffrey’s spring season, and she was perfect from the start—vulnerable, aware, poignant, terrified and noticeably more powerful and ferocious than in her many traditionally lyrical roles. She had dreamed of dancing this role of a human sacrifice ever since joining the company in 2003. And once she learned the part, Wozniak began “thinking about what this young virgin girl was really like, going through all the complex emotions she must have felt knowing she was about to die, and realizing that her family, and all the people she had trusted, had turned against her in a way.” The Chosen One’s grueling solo lasts only a few minutes, but before the dancer bursts into motion she must stand absolutely still, frozen in fright. “There is a spotlight over you at that point, and everything else seems to disappear into darkness, though you can hear the Elders stomping. And it’s at that moment that you really become the character.” —Hedy Weiss

 

Dancer: Marie-Agnès Gillot
Company: Paris Opéra Ballet
Ballet: George Balanchine’s Apollo

 
As the first Paris Opéra Ballet dancer promoted to étoile after performing a nonclassical ballet, Marie-Agnès Gillot is the company’s contemporary darling. She always looks like she’s having an “on” night, so grounded that she can balance at her whim until she chooses to move on to the next step. But what makes her truly unique in modern movement is her ability to imbue even the most abstract works with meaning and personality. Many Balanchine purists were astonished at Gillot’s playful, seductive Terpsichore in  Apollo at the Nijinsky Gala in Hamburg last summer. The usually spare, cool neoclassicism became jazzy, with hips jutting from side to side. Her long legs articulated each step with clarity. And her entire body tested the limits of how much she could play with the music, coyly waiting to feel each movement from within before letting it gravitate out to the tips of her pointe shoes. —Jennifer Stahl

 

Dancer: Ebony Williams
Company: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Ballet: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo

 
When Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Ebony Williams steps onstage, her presence is sometimes so fierce, it’s intimidating just to be in the audience. That presence was most evident this year in Cedar Lake’s mysterious, multilayered Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Williams moved with utter fearlessness, forcefully throwing her body into the movement at one moment, finding a soft, slinky angularity the next. “He choreographed my solo by giving me tasks that would create movement,” says Williams. “At first, I had to move like I had balls all over me, then like I was made of fire and at the end I became an animal.” Although Williams admits she was nervous about having to come up with her own contemporary movement, she appreciated that the process was a partnership: “He wanted to know how I moved and who I was—and let me show that onstage.” —Jennifer Stahl

 

Honorable Mentions

Kathryn Morgan in The Sleeping Beauty Wedding Pas de Deux, during New York City Ballet’s “Dancer’s Choice” evening: Simultaneously authoritative and delicate, regal and gentle, the young corps de ballet member breezed through this technically exacting pas de deux, the perfect showcase for her ineffable brand of understated charm.

Maria Riccetto in American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle with Herman Cornejo: Usually paired with David Hallberg, Riccetto bloomed dancing with Cornejo, bringing a deep tenderness and vulnerability to the role. Technically flawless, she made Giselle utterly believable, and together she and Cornejo seemed a natural partnership.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 45-year-old Louise Nadeau in Forsythe’s Urlicht at her farewell performance in June: Strength, grace, technique, musicality and personality all combined at peak levels for what was one of her best performances.

Hamburg Ballet principal Hélène Bouchet in Verklungene Feste by John Neumeier: She moved with that ideal combination of strength and abandon that all dancers strive for yet rarely achieve. Over and over, she sent her body flying, then pulled back and found the control to guide her limbs into precise positions.

Robin Mathes in Mauro Bigonzetti’s rousing Cantata: Leaving fear in the dust, the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal soloist mixed gravitas with abandon, charging head-on into the pathos of the music.

Jazmon Voss and Cira Robinson of the U.K.’s Ballet Black in Antonia Franceschi’s intimate Pop8: After a scintillating duet in which Voss and Robinson were vivacious yet sinuous, Voss’ jazz-themed solo fused muscular virtuosity with delicate grace and sophistication.

Of all the full-length classical ballets, Coppélia charms audiences with humor above everything else. The ballet tells the tale of Swanilda and Franz, who are engaged to be married. When Franz falls for a doll, Swanilda impersonates it, and mayhem ensues. Here, Texas Ballet Theater’s Jayme Autrey Griffith offers her thoughts on the lead role, which she will reprise when the company presents Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia September 21-23 in Fort Worth. For more:  www.texasballettheater.org
—Jocelyn Anderson

The role of Swanilda is special to me because when I was in the academy at Houston Ballet, I got to be the Coppélia doll and switch spots with the principals. Then when I moved to Texas Ballet Theater in 2003, Swanilda was my very first role with the company.

It was pretty easy for me to portray that character because that was who I was. I was only 17 or 18 when I did it. She’s naïve, daring and adventurous, kind of a flirt. I acted like myself. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

I’m pretty intimidated to do it this next time. I’m kind of scared! Last time, I was a new face and no one knew me. Also, I was young and didn’t know any better. Now I’ve performed a lot more, people know me, and they expect something out of me. That adds to the pressure. And I’m not that young girl anymore. I’m married now. I’ve danced Cleopatra and things like that. So it adds a whole new dimension to it.

To go back and be that innocent girl, I have to pay attention to the acting a little more. I’m going to watch how I did it last time, because I think I was natural. But I can’t do the same thing, otherwise I haven’t improved at all. Also, I read a lot whenever I do a part. For Coppélia, I got the children’s books. They break down the story, and I can go through the ballet in my head, matching up some of the words in the books to the steps. Of course, there’s a lot of dancing too. You have all those variations—you want to die afterward—but they are so much fun. Then you save Franz and go into the wedding, when you dance the pas de deux. You’re still young and excited, but you’ve matured a little bit through the whole thing.”

Many Romantic ballets revolve around tragedy when dealing with love and romance. However, some simply attempt to replicate the joy of dancing, and produce little conflict other than a delayed marriage (Swanilda’s story in Coppélia hardly compares to the trials and tribulations of Odette's in Swan Lake). Still, beauty remains a major component to all ballets, no matter the conclusion. Arthur St.-Léon’s Coppélia is one of few happy ending ballets of the Romantic era—with the famous Prayer variation as its peaceful promoter.  

 

Former Australian Ballet principal dancer Lisa Bolte dances this variation with a presence that calms the stage with refreshing ease. Her control is impeccable, and her strength allows her body to steadily float throughout the adagio. As a tribute to the best of ballet’s happy endings, Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

Among the set, costuming and score of a ballet, movement becomes the most powerful form of expression—especially in romantic-era story ballets, which entertain and convey a plot without words. Thus, the most underrated skill of a professional dancer becomes crucial: miming. The subtlest gesture can convey heartbreak, joy and even the desires and frustrations of certain characters. 

 

This clip from Act I of Coppèlia features former Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin as Swanilda. In this scene, she must introduce both the nuances of her character and the ballet's budding conflict. Despite the challenge of this responsibility, Benjamin blends the two skills into one. Her miming does not distract from the movement, and her dancing does not smother Swanilda’s message. Benjamin can be lighthearted to the point of cheesy—but who cares? That’s who Swanhilda is in the world of Coppèlia. Try to not smile during this clip of Benjamin’s performance—Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

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